Smart motorways — not that smart? Part Two.

Rehilly, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Part One of this post, we discussed the idea behind smart motorways and why they raise serious safety concerns. This time, we’ll look at the fate of the Government’s “safety plan”, and some responses to the criticisms of smart motorways.

In November 2020, most of us weren’t thinking much about smart motorways. To put it mildly, there were plenty of other things going on. So when the Goverment quietly ignored its own smart motorway safety plan, it didn’t get much attention.

The safety plan had been released in March 2020. It was commissioned in response to campaigners such as Meera Naran, whose 8-year-old son Dev was killed in a smart motorway collision, as well as widespread public concern. Among the plan’s 700m proposals were to reduce the distance between Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) to ¾ of a mile ‘where feasible.’

Around 72% of drivers worry that they could break down between ERAs. Reducing the distance between them would therefore be a big step in increasing driver confidence in the smart motorway system.

Unfortunately, it seems that ‘where feasible’ actually meant ‘not very often’. In November, the RAC reported that:

…nine smart motorway projects will go ahead with refuge areas between 1.04 and 1.39 miles apart.

They added that:

Another 10-mile section of the M3 will go ahead without extra lay-bys, even though work has not yet begun.

In addition, despite Transport Secretary Grant Shapps promising to abolish the dynamic hard shoulder schemes he’d called “confusing”, these remained open across 67 miles of motorways. They are scheduled to become permanent driving lanes by 2025.

As things stand, the much-touted safety improvements aren’t impressing campaigners, or the many critics of smart motorways.

Nevertheless, maybe there’s a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater (do people still say that?), so let’s look at what’s in favour of smart motorway schemes.

The case for smart motorways

As it turns out, the majority of UK drivers support the idea of smart motorways. In a 2019 RAC survey, 55% agreed that “smart motorways are a cost-effective way to increase capacity on congested motorways”. Less than one in six drivers surveyed (15%) disagreed with the statement, with 30% undecided or offering no opinion.

Ultimately, smart motorways are designed to reduce the misery of congestion, with its associated environmental costs. And in that respect, they have to be considered a convincing success. A 2017 research report concluded that:

Overall, smart motorway schemes have significantly reduced average journey times and journey time variability, improved motorway capacity and smoothed traffic flow…each scheme consistently demonstrated considerable improvements when compared to non-smart motorway conditions.

In fact, Highways England reported that journey reliability on smart motorways increased by 22%. That’s a pretty massive improvement.

What about safety? We know that people stuck in live lanes of smart motorways, without a hard shoulder, have tragically lost their lives. However, supporters of the schemes point out that hard shoulders aren’t very safe either. Sadly, people have also been killed when there is a permanent hard shoulder.

Looking at the bigger picture, Highways England insist that overall, smart motorways are proving to be safer than conventional ones. Based on three years of data from schemes running on the M25 — and one year from seven other schemes — the agency concluded that smart motorways had 28% fewer casualties. A spokesman commented:

Our motorways are some of the safest in the world; they are three times safer than A roads and six times safer than single carriageway A roads. Smart motorways include more safety features than conventional motorways, including signs and signals, CCTV, and places to stop in an emergency every 1.5 miles.

In addition, we’d speculate (though it is only a speculation) that smart motorways will become safer as time goes on. There are three possible reasons:

  • Currently, the level of driver awareness and education regarding smart motorways is very low. Like any big change to our driving habits, that’s bound to result in incidents and even fatalities. But over time, as drivers get more used to how to use smart motorways, this should decrease.
  • Over time, more smart motorways will add stopped-vehicle detection systems, and CCTV coverage can be expected to improve. These are a major factor in preventing collisions.
  • Vehicle technology is improving all the time: many cars already incorporate automatic emergency braking as standard, and within a few years most new cars will probably communicate directly with smart motorway systems to provide driver alerts.

Smart motorways — our view

We have to admit that we’ve been swinging back and forth on the smart motorway issue. On the one hand, in principle, they seem such a good idea — why scar the countryside with more concrete if you can make the existing motorways work better? But on the other hand, the idea of being stuck without a hard shoulder and with traffic thundering up behind is frankly pretty terrifying.

Granted, this is a far better situation than we face, without protest or campaigns, on many dual carriageways. These have the same speed limit as motorways, many have very high volumes of traffic, but they mostly lack CCTV or other safety systems. Still, that’s no excuse for smart motorways: we don’t want to bring motorways down to the level of dual carriageways.

We would hope that out of all the statistics available, Highway England have the definitive ones. These show that the schemes are safer overall. However, there’s a long way to go before that convinces a sceptical public. The same RAC survey that we quoted above also showed that 68% of motorists think removing the hard shoulder “compromises safety for those who break down in a live lane”. In our view, a proper driver education campaign could really help with this, and reduce the overall number of incidents. But more importantly, the Government could stop reneging on its own safety recommendations by providing much more frequent ERAs and ensuring all the available safety features are properly implemented.

If we’re going to have smart motorways, let’s do them right.

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